MQM’s Hard Choices

By: Faisal Aziz Khan
Published: December 1, 2017
Print This Post

In Pakistan’s chequered history, perhaps no party has seen as many ups and downs as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Military operations, mass arrests, violent deaths of workers and leaders in shootouts with the law enforcers and while in custody, bloody feuds with rivals and dissidents, exiles, splinter groups and charges ranging from extortion, torture, killings and violence to sedition and links to India – the party has faced it all and lived to tell the tale.

In this saga of ever changing political fortunes, what remains constant and unchanged for the MQM despite all its woes is its solid vote bank in urban Sindh in general, and Karachi in particular. All the consecutive crackdowns, smear campaigns, splits, bloody rivalries and the mega, self-inviting mistakes of its leaders combined could not deter its voters from coming out and putting their stamp on the “kite” – the party’s election symbol.

However, come August 22, 2016 and the MQM disassociated itself from its founding leader Altaf Hussain after his outburst against the state of Pakistan and its institutions.

After the collective revolt of Pakistan-based MQM leaders, lawmakers, and office bearers against the party strongman — a scenario which was once unimaginable — it seemed that this latest rift would weaken the party’s grip on Karachi, which it had been controlling for nearly three decades.

Altaf Hussain lost control over his party not with a bang, but a whimper. There were no huge protests in favour of the man, who once used to paralyse the entire city, over a single phone call from London.

In fact, for the first time ever, the maverick Hussain was at the receiving end of criticism from even those peers, who spent a lifetime defending his controversial statements and speeches and even the violent style of politics.  However, it does not mean that the self-exiled MQM leader does not enjoy the support of the hardline workers and supporters of the party. But a backlash from Hussain’s loyalists was prevented – thanks to the ongoing Karachi Operation. The rifts and cracks within the MQM’s organisational structure and confusion among its cadres remained hard to ignore as the party for the first time in history attempted its luck minus Altaf Hussain.

Add to this challenge, the “poaching” of its workers and leaders by the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) — led by friends-turned-foes Syed Mustafa Kamal, Anis Qaimkhani & Co. Indeed, the crisis appeared grave.

As the Sattar-led MQM and PSP leaders locked horns in an ugly war of words, at least the two sides did not indulge in violence – a welcome change in Karachi’s politics which witnessed a long-drawn-out tit-for-tat killings all through the nineties and even the following years between the MQM and its rival faction Haqiqi.

Yet, the gulf between the MQM-Sattar and the PSP appeared too wide to bridge. And it caught many of the keenest watchers of Karachi politics off-guard when the two sides announced plans on November 8 to run in the next elections on the same symbol and manifesto.

The fairytale announcement, however, lasted just a day. The reason: the blowback from the MQM rank-and-file and senior party leaders who appeared aghast at the very idea that their party would cease to exist after the patch-up with their former comrades in the PSP.

The contradictory statements from many of the MQM stalwarts made it clear that Sattar does not enjoy the grip over the party the way his predecessor did and failed to bring even all the key people on board regarding his decision of joining hands with the PSP.

In the aftermath of the controversy, Sattar announced to quit the party, but changed his decision over the insistence of his colleagues. And in doing so, he came out all guns blazing against the PSP, which responded in kind. In the exchange of allegations and counter-allegations, PSP leader Mustafa Kamal triggered yet another controversy by claiming that the unity move was supported by the “establishment.”

Does this mean that the process to bring the MQM and PSP under one banner is now off the table?

Political observers, the MQM and the PSP insiders say that the move may have stalled for now, but would be revived sooner than later, albeit with some compromises.

Background interviews with members of the two parties reveal that the only major resistance to this deal is the insistence of Mustafa Kamal that the brand MQM should be buried once and for all – a demand unacceptable to most of the leaders, workers and supporters of the party.

The other bone of contention between the two sides is the fact that the PSP is distancing itself from the “Mohajir” politics, which the MQM sees as a key to its survival – at least in the next elections.

However, an MQM leader said requesting anonymity that in politics there never is a final word.

“We cannot deny the fact that there is too much in common between the sides, especially after the MQM has distanced itself from Altaf Hussain and his London allies,” he said.

“For now, we obviously are taking a position that there would be no talks with the PSP. But it can change before the elections and there is every likelihood that the two will come together in one way or the other, although that means that both sides will have to let go their ego and adopt a give-and-take policy,” he said.

Karachi watchers say that the MQM may be in crisis as it was under pressure from several sides – MQM London, the PSP, dissent within and above all pressure from the establishment – yet it enjoys more electoral support than the PSP.

After MQM Pakistan’s disassociation from Hussain, the biggest propaganda card in the hand of the PSP has also lost its worth.

A coalition, or merger of sorts, between the two is likely to be a win-win situation for both sides.

The MQM-P would only need to worry about offsetting the influence of the MQM-London after ceasefire with the PSP. This will allow it to focus better on elections and counter especially the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which are trying to exploit the situation. The PSP, which is yet to be tested in electoral politics, would also be able to get its candidates in a winning position after striking a deal with the MQM rather than acting just as a spoiler and vote-divider.

A unity between the MQM-P and the PSP also makes sense because not just their style of politics is the same but their demands for urban Sindh – from empowered local governments to greater financial rights and development funds – remain the same.

If the MQM-P and the PSP run in elections against each other, the biggest beneficiary would be the PPP as it would get in a position to win four to six extra seats in Karachi due to the divided MQM vote bank. The PTI, which surprised many by securing more than 525,000 votes in Karachi in the in 2013 general elections for the national assembly, failed to capitalise on its gains in the following years. The PTI lacks organisational structure in urban Sindh which is a serious drawback in electoral politics despite the individual following and huge fan club of its leader Imran Khan.

Given the need to keep the traditional MQM vote bank united, the MQM says its doors remain open to Kamal or any other party dissident.

The return of Amir Khan to the MQM manifests that the party has benefitted from its policy of reconciliation as this onetime biggest rival is now the mainstay of the party.

However, the MQM-P’s leadership will have to perform the Herculean task of developing a consensus for the future course of action as the decision-making dynamics of the party has undergone a sea-change.

Now gone are the days when Hussain – being the party’s demigod – had the final say in the decision-making. No one dared to go against his decisions, especially in the public. But those days are over now.

The latest botched move by Sattar to join hands with the PSP highlights this fact. In a way, this is a blessing in disguise for the party as if it stays the course, it would evolve a more democratic and collective culture of decision-making.

However, it is yet to be seen how the party will perform in the next general elections minus Altaf Hussain. If Hussain manages to pull the strings from abroad at the sector level structure of the party, he has all the potential to damage the party’s vote bank.

Therefore, Sattar and his team have to work extra fast and hard to take control of the party at every level to offset Hussain’s influence as well as to close as many fronts as possible, including the most important against the PSP.

The MQM-P will also have to mend its fences with the establishment and get operational space for itself that includes the liberty to carry out its activities freely and regain the control of its offices. In this context again, an alliance or unity with the PSP would go a long way.

While the MQM is trying hard to gather together its pieces, the fact remains that for now the future electoral scene appears fluid. The MQM – P minus Altaf Hussain is entering into unchartered waters where the current and tide has dramatically changed. To remain a force to reckon with, it has to bring at least some of the dissidents back in its fold.

About the Author
Faisal Aziz Khan
The writer is the editor of Bol Media Group’s upcoming English newspaper.